Imagine this: You’re in a metro station, and you miss the train. Most unfortunately, the next one is delayed by a half hour and your phone is running at 5%. Having nothing else to do, you glance around and notice a shabby, paint-chipped Yamaha piano stationed against the wall. You walk over and sit down at the lopsided bench, placing your fingers on the dusty keys, and you begin to play the “Boogie Woogie Stomp.”
Soon enough, passersby begin to nod their heads and sway to the beat. You shift the key up a chromatic step and add in some fancy riffs, evoking energy like a flame. Kids are dancing. Adults are laughing. The station, once an abyss of mechanical noise, is now alive with music.
With the ability to play piano, you can sit down at any keyboard or piano instrument and immediately invigorate the atmosphere–while knocking the socks off your friends.
But how do you acquire this wondrous ability? The simple answer is practice.
However, many aspiring pianists wonder where to start. One of the biggest questions is:
How many hours a day should you practice piano? Consistent and deliberate practice of about 30 to 45 minutes a day with specific goals in mind appears to be a good balance for most people.
Setting Your Practice Schedule
The amount of time you should spend practicing depends on your goals. Do you want to play with a band? Do you want to build a foundation for learning other instruments? Is your life-long ambition to become a concert pianist who tours the globe?
Simply put, your goal will determine your workload. As you may well imagine, the practice schedule of a musical hobbyist will be far different from that of a professional pianist.
Other important considerations are age and attention span. A 12-year-old will need a different practice schedule than a college student, as will an individual used to focusing for unbroken periods of time versus someone who is more active and “on the go.” Ultimately, you must decide what is best for your lifestyle and personality.
However, to give you an idea of where to start, here are some sample practice schedules to try:
Novice: 30 x 6 or 60 x 3 (3 hours per week)
With this plan, you will practice for 30 minutes six times a week or, alternatively, 60 minutes three times a week, amounting to a grand total of three hours per week. This is a good plan for beginners who want to get into the habit of practicing. Don’t be afraid to break your practice times into smaller chunks if you prefer shorter durations. With this plan, you can make steady progress toward piano proficiency.
Intermediate: 45 x 6 or 90 x 3 (4.5 hours per week)
With this plan, you will practice for 45 minutes six times a week or 90 minutes three times a week, amounting to a grand total of 4.5 hours per week. This is a great strategy for intermediate-level players or beginners who want to improve their skills.
Advanced: 60 x 6 or 30 x 12 (6 hours per week)
With this plan, you will practice for 60 minutes six times a week or 30 minutes 12 times a week (for example, you could practice 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening), amounting to a grand total of six hours per week. This plan is ideal for more advanced players who are seriously invested in taking their talent to the next level.
Quality over Quantity
Journalist Malcolm Gladwell famously declared that 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to master a skill. This theory was based on the research of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, but it was recently disproven. Practice, although an important factor, is only part of the equation.
Furthermore, Gladwell and Ericsson forgot to address a small but important detail: what kind of practice?
While it is important to set time-specific goals, you should first focus on how you spend your practice time. In other words, prioritize quality over quantity.
Let’s compare these scenarios: Joe and Emma are two high school seniors trying to improve their piano skills during their summer break before college. Joe practices two hours per day, and Emma practices 30 minutes per day. Joe spends those two hours stumbling through his scales at a dizzying speed and jumping between 20 different half-learned songs while texting his girlfriend every five minutes. Emma, on the other hand, leaves her phone in a different room, plays her scales and arpeggios slowly but accurately and commits herself to learning and finishing one song.
This is a prime example of passive versus active practice. Joe is perpetually distracted by unrelated matters while Emma is deliberately focused on the task at hand. Thus, while the quantity of Joe’s practice is more, the quality of Emma’s is superior. Although Joe spends much more time practicing, Emma is making more progress.
Here’s a simple rule that will help keep your practice time in tip-top shape: If you can’t practice well, don’t practice at all.
Making the Most of Your Practice Time
Of course, the question now is: How does one practice well?
A single search on Google will unearth millions of dos and don’ts regarding the “best” way to practice. Some say to take breaks; others say to build stamina through longer durations. Some say to run through all the scales every time you practice; others say to alternate through a select few.
Trying to sort through the madness is a perfect recipe for headache.
Ultimately, excellent practice is more about your headspace than a list of rules. First of all, you must understand the connection between deliberate practice and success–and you must be passionate about your goal. This will push you to practice actively and stick to your schedule, even when you don’t want to.
While every pianist structures their practice time differently, there are at least three crucial ingredients for the perfectly baked practice cake:
1. Proper Technique
This is the most important aspect of your practice time. Proper technique prevents instrument-related injuries, which can happen when someone plays habitually in a way that is not ergonomic–in other words, in a way that does not work naturally with their body.
For example, it would be detrimental to play scales with your hands flat against the keys. Playing like this in a repetitive, habitual fashion is bound to cause tendonitis since it forces your wrist into an unnaturally tense position.
This is just one example of the importance of good technique. You could also learn from my friends example: after just weeks of practicing the “Sugar Plum Fairy” solo for an upcoming Nutcracker performance, she noticed a hard, round lump on the top of her wrist. It was a ganglion cyst that had developed from her poor arpeggio technique, in which she spread her fingers wide and tried to grasp every note instead of releasing each key as she went along. This seemed like a small, insignificant habit, but the constant tension created inflammation that forced her into a month-long–and very unwelcome–practice hiatus.
Since we can’t cover the entirety of piano technique in this post, just remember this: If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
2. Foundational Units
Almost every song you could play on the piano shares common characteristics. Two of the most frequent examples are scales and chords. Both are used in classical works, but chords are more common in pop styles. Thus, it is important to develop familiarity with these foundational units during your practice time.
You could do this by warming up with a few scales, studying the Circle of 5ths or experimenting with different chord progressions and inversions.
Here’s a video covering the circle of 5th’s:
3. Articulation Activities
Articulation is the vehicle of musicality; it allows us to create either legato or staccato, melancholy or bombastic. Simply put, articulation is the manner in which you strike the key. Thus, it is closely related to attack, the energy or motion with which you strike the key, that allows you to manipulate dynamics (loud versus soft). Aside from just learning the notes, articulation allows you to bring the music alive.
You can practice articulation by experimenting with how you play the keys. Here are some different articulation activities you could try:
Staccato scales–play each key as if you are touching a stove
Legato arpeggios–play each key as if you are taking long strides from one to the next
When it comes to piano practice, the options are almost endless and largely dependent on your own preferences, personality and lifestyle. Your goals should be the instigators behind your actions. The most important takeaway from this article is not a list of rules but rather a mindset: In everything you do, be passionate, consistent and deliberate.
And–bonus tip–don’t practice more than four hours per day.
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